The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention approved a new COVID-19 booster shot yesterday that targets the recently circulating BA.4 and BA.5 subvariants. The new Pfizer-BioNTech booster is available for anyone age 12 or older, while Moderna’s new version is for anyone age 18 or older.
National Public Radio’s Rob Stein reports that “a person is only eligible for a booster if it has been at least two months since their last COVID vaccine. Some vaccine experts say that it would be better for people to wait until four months after their last COVID shot or infection for maximum efficacy.” Indeed, on MPR yesterday, U of M epidemiologist Dr. Michael Osterholm stated, “with the new vaccine you can get it as early as two months after the last dose. I think waiting a little bit longer is better.”
Osterholm also commented that “we have a significant amount of [COVID] activity right now in Minnesota.” He went on to say that another fall surge is highly uncertain, stating “anybody that predicts what's happening with COVID, more than three to five weeks out, probably also has a bridge to sell, so be careful.”
Thus, as we will discuss at the end of this week’s round-up, the return to school that is now upon Minnesota may or may not coincide with a fall uptick in cases and hospitalizations that suggested a seasonal pattern to the virus in both 2020 and 2021.
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Cases and hospitalizations have ticked down, unfortunately deaths have not
Officially reported cases of COVID-19 are down in all regions of the state. It’s hard to say if this is the beginning of a slide down our long-standing plateau, but the fact that cases are down in all regions is a hopeful sign.
After a jump in intensive care unit admissions the last couple of weeks, ICU admissions are down, as are non-ICU admissions.
Deaths due to COVID-19 have increased some after a lower point at the beginning of August, but at this point do not seem to be on track for the peak numbers seen in mid-July.
Wastewater shows declining levels of COVID in the Twin Cities, northern and southwestern Minnesota
After last week’s reported four percent increase, this week the Metropolitan Council and the University of Minnesota’s Genomic Center are again reporting a decline in COVID-19 levels detected in samples from the state’s single largest wastewater treatment plant. Their summary this week: “The total viral RNA load entering the Metro Plant decreased by 19 percent last week compared to a week earlier” (comparing the weeks ending Aug. 22 and Aug. 29).
The Metropolitan Council confirmed that the state fairgrounds are serviced by the Metro Plant, but had no comment about how this might impact their COVID analysis. They may have more to say next week, given that only the first day of the fair is included in this week’s report.
The slight increases in COVID levels that showed up in last week’s report from the Metropolitan Council are now showing up in the latest data out of the University of Minnesota’s Wastewater SARS-CoV2 Surveillance Study. In fact, the latter study’s broader look at the Twin Cities Metro region, involving 13 wastewater treatment plants, is now reporting a 13 percent increase for the week ending Aug. 21.
The Surveillance Study is also reporting weekly increases in the state’s South Central, Central and South East regions, with the latter two particularly concerning since those regions also saw rising COVID levels over the previous four weeks.
Wastewater from study’s North West and North East regions is showing weekly decreases in COVID levels, as it is in the South West region—which also shows a small decrease over the previous four week period.
Minnesota is greener this week, and not just due to recent rain
In the CDC’s latest weekly “Community Level” COVID-19 risk assessment map, issued yesterday afternoon, more than twice as many Minnesota counties appear in low-risk green than was the case just one week ago. Notably this includes the entire Twin Cities metro region, which has been in the medium-risk category for the previous two weeks.
The CDC’s analysis puts six Minnesota counties in the high-risk category this week. Based on this assessment, residents of Big Stone, Brown, Freeborn, Lincoln, Roseau and Traverse counties are advised to wear masks to protect themselves and one another from COVID transmission when in indoor public places.
The CDC’s “Community Level” map takes into account both COVID-19 case rates and hospitalizations. Looking only at the latest weekly case rates, 74 of Minnesota’s 87 counties meet the CDC’s threshold for high transmission (100+ weekly cases per 100,000 residents). Mahnomen County has the state’s highest rate, with over 500 officially reported cases per 100,000 for the week ending Aug. 31. Weekly case rates in Lac qui Parle County exceed 300, and they exceed 200 per 100,000 in ten other counties.
Back to school = increase in COVID?
As students return to schools and colleges across the state, you may be wondering if we are in for an increase in COVID cases. We took a look at COVID indictors for three cities that have already had children back to school for a month – Atlanta, Honolulu and Indianapolis. On balance, it seems to be good news.
First, a look at officially reported cases per capita. As we’ve said for the Minnesota data, prevalence of at-home testing makes this metric somewhat suspect, but it’s probably still indicative of general recent trends. In Atlanta and Honolulu, cases have been going down consistently since August 1. In Indianapolis, cases rose the week after school started but have since been on the decline. (Given that different cities may have different testing behaviors, we do not suggest drawing too many conclusions from comparing the number of cases in the cities to each other.)
The most recent COVID-19 hospital admission and bed utilization rates are lower than they were in all three cities when school started a month ago. While these metrics would expect lag of a couple of weeks behind increased COVID-19 transmission, the lack of any uptick combined with the declining cases provide some hope that the start of the school year won’t lead to major new outbreaks.
Only time will tell if these same patterns will hold for Minnesota, but these trends at least show that an immediate uptick in cases following the first day of school is far less than inevitable.